Late Victorian New Jersey, in 2D

Princeton has a massive archive of Sanborn fire insurance maps of New Jersey, which it has now scanned and placed online. The maps depict the urbanism of the state from the 1880s through the 1920s, showing in fine detail all of the components that made up towns and cities during the heyday of heavy industry and the first great immigration wave.

Here’s an industrial slice of Newark, from 1892:


Here’s Nassau and Witherspoon, in Princeton, from 1885:


Here’s Rutgers College and the New Brunswick train station, from 1892:


All before zoning. Great materials. One thing that strikes me whenever I look at Sanborn maps is the diversity of uses in Victorian neighborhoods, and how the live-work arrangement was so much more accessible to people with small land holdings in the pre-zoning era. If you look around 1892 Newark, you’ll find bakeries and saddle-makers’ shops mixed in among the unnamed row houses. You’ll also find large industrial sites. Clearly, the possibility of having a glue factory open up right next to one’s house was far from ideal, and the onset of increasingly heavy industries necessitated a more formal way of segregating nuisances from peaceful living and working spaces. But I wonder what role comprehensive zoning ultimately played in squashing what still remained of the home-based workshops tradition from the 19th century. There’s a certain democracy to business and industry when one can venture into productivity without a whole lot of overhead. But regulation has a tendency to create moats around marketplaces that protect those with deep pockets: Requiring prospective businesspersons to invest in properly-zoned real estate rather than resourcefully modifying an existing parcel is certainly one way of creating a formidable moat. And with zoning, all goods must be transported to market, because they can’t be made where the markets exist — another moat.

Given that land use regulation has the potential to create moats around all kinds of economic opportunities for individuals — not to mention its potential to stifle other forms of individualism, community-building, and general resourcefulness — I think the fundamental question of land use law is just how much land use regulation is necessary to achieve the objective of nuisance-avoidance, because (ideally) that point should be its limit. Keeping glue factories out of residential neighborhoods is a reasonable goal. But is keeping apartments out of single-family neighborhoods really the business of government? Or keeping retail space and offices away from housing? (And, if these development filters are important to some, why not let them work out common-law private covenants to achieve the same goals?) To their credit, the New Urbanists have raised some of these questions over the last generation. But their responses, to me, seem flawed: Better zoning! Form-based codes! Going from the mish-mosh of postwar Euclidean suburbia to the ultra-planned paradise (or dystopia) of pseudo-urban neighborhoods whose every inch is legally dictated by someone with graduate planning credentials and (in many cases) distorting political considerations.

Nassau Street, Princeton. Winter 2013.

As a counterpoint, Princeton was built without any of that, and it remains a great town — largely because it hasn’t changed very much. Look at the Sanborn map from 1885, and you’ll find liquor stores, a billiards club, bookstores, a pool hall, and hotels. It’s so well planned! But nobody governmentally authorized those businesses to be there. There was no years-long process of planning-board meetings; no formulaic response by applicants to mind-numbing RFPs; no political sycophancy to become an approved tenant of the borough’s official redeveloper. These businesses were on Nassau Street in 1885 because there was a university across the street; because it was logical for them to set up shop there, and so they did. And looking around the 1885 neighborhood, you’ll also find tenements, “work shops”, a sausage-making plant, watchmakers, a cabinet maker, and a bookbinder. Presumably, the attaching plates all have similar uses — none of which would ever make it past the planning board in such a neighborhood today. But, really, what harm did they do? And what is the cost in terms of the richness of our neighborhoods and the spirit of our culture when we accept the canceling of so many opportunities for people to work from or near home, in their chosen trades?